Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mamet's Memo

A memo written by David Mamet has recently surfaced, one that he wrote to the writers of his TV show The Unit. Though the memo is directed specifically to television writers, it nevertheless contains advice which all writers of fiction should take to heart.

. . . OUR FRIENDS. THE PENGUINS, THINK THAT WE, THEREFORE, ARE EMPLOYED TO COMMUNICATE INFORMATION — AND, SO, AT TIMES, IT SEEMS TO US.

BUT NOTE:THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN’T, I WOULDN’T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA.

QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, ACUTE GOAL.

SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.

1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT? (I suspect a typo has intruded here.)
3) WHY NOW?

THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE LITMUS PAPER. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWER WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT.

. . . EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE.

THIS NEED IS WHY THEY CAME. IT IS WHAT THE SCENE IS ABOUT. THEIR ATTEMPT TO GET THIS NEED MET WILL LEAD, AT THE END OF THE SCENE,TO FAILURE - THIS IS HOW THE SCENE IS OVER. IT, THIS FAILURE, WILL, THEN, OF NECESSITY, PROPEL US INTO THE NEXT SCENE.

ALL THESE ATTEMPTS, TAKEN TOGETHER, WILL, OVER THE COURSE OF THE EPISODE, CONSTITUTE THE PLOT.

ANY SCENE, THUS, WHICH DOES NOT BOTH ADVANCE THE PLOT, AND STANDALONE (THAT IS, DRAMATICALLY, BY ITSELF, ON ITS OWN MERITS) IS EITHER SUPERFLUOUS, OR INCORRECTLY WRITTEN.

YES BUT YES BUT YES BUT, YOU SAY: WHAT ABOUT THE NECESSITY OF WRITING IN ALL THAT “INFORMATION?”

AND I RESPOND “FIGURE IT OUT” ANY DICKHEAD WITH A BLUESUIT CAN BE (AND IS) TAUGHT TO SAY “MAKE IT CLEARER”, AND “I WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT HIM”.

WHEN YOU’VE MADE IT SO CLEAR THAT EVEN THIS BLUESUITED PENGUIN IS HAPPY, BOTH YOU AND HE OR SHE WILL BE OUT OF A JOB.

And so on . . .

[via Oz]

3 Comments:

Blogger john_appel said...

I'm not sure I agree 100%. Occasionally the reader or viewer needs a respite from the action. Right off the top of my head comes the scene in Saving Private Ryan before the German assault on the bridge over the Merderet, in which both the soldiers and the viewers get a break from the carnage.

Does that scene advance the drama? I'm hard-pressed to say it does. But does it make the movie better for it's inclusion? I'd argue it does, for the same reasons Shakespeare threw in his comic relief characters: contrast is necessary for the drama to stand out.

But then again, I'm no David Mamet, or even a Walter Jon Williams. ;)

8:21 AM  
Blogger kat said...

This is one of the things that got pounded into me in various writer's communities, articles, et cetera, over and over and over, and like John I'm not positive it's true. Or perhaps it's just stated awkwardly. Mamet's calling it drama. The writing communities were calling it conflict. It is undoubtably extremely important, and Mamet's essential point (that exposition, information, ought to be invisible and always takes a back seat to what's happening) I absolutely agree with.

However.

When the point of a scene is stated as "conflict" or "drama", people tend to grab for the most obvious interpretation: a fight. A wants X. B opposes him. The clock ticks down, the stakes go up, everyone yells and screams at each other, et cetera.

An entire book of this -- well, it can be done well; I've seen it written well. But I cannot write it well.

It was Ursula LeGuin who put her finger on both the problem and the solution for me, when she said that what a scene needs is change. Conflict is one form of change, but there are quite a lot of others, and most of the time you're better off with a mix.

Change can happen in any number of ways that aren't evident. It can happen when the conflict isn't even present, only implied. For example, I recently wrote two scenes in which the characters were doing exactly what Mamet advises against, standing around talking about a third. In the first they were talking about how to kill the non-present character; in the second it was just one girl complaining about her boyfriend to another, which ought to have been boring, except that the girl had previously pulled a gun on said boyfriend for cheating on her. That she's surprised this failed to save her relationship is not, technically, conflict, but damned if it's not important, and interesting, and something that people will want to read.

None of which I think Mamet would actually disagree with, and none of which truly fails his litmus tests (which are bloody good ones). It's those words drama and conflict that can be misleading, that can lead writers to focus on a single and somewhat shallow interpretation of story, to the detriment of all.

*looks at length of comment* Um. Anyway. Interesting memo; thanks for posting it.

9:51 AM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Good points. I think it comes down to the fact that Mamet was addressing his comments to writers of a dramatic TV show in which people have lots of guns.

In a one-hour drama, which is actually less than 45 minutes long, you have a lot less room to mess about with things that are not actual drama. Every scene has to matter, or it gets cut.

In novel-length fiction, you have the room for things like internal monologue, or a scene in which a character just sits and thinks, or reminisces, or talks about other characters. In drama that just doesn't happen.

(This was the biggest adjustment I had to make when I was writing for movies and TV. My fictional characters have strong internal lives, but my movie characters couldn't do that, because any internal life is invisible to the audience.)

Still, even in fiction, every scene should count. Every scene should reveal something new about the story, or about the character. Otherwise the scene is going to be pretty yawnsome.

3:49 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home